My Facebook feed is full of stories from teachers who are experiencing fatigue they attribute to long sessions in front of the computer. Covid-19 has upended many people’s way of living and daily routines, including my own. So, what is so tiring about this new way of living for teachers and the students we teach?
One thing is I have to focus my attention more. In a face-to-face classroom, when I am teaching, I know what I am going to teach and so my attention is often relaxed. Online, it is a different situation altogether. I am watching two screens now. Watching one screen on Google MEET to make sure I am still smiling and energetic, then occasionally flipping the screen into presentation mode to show something to students. I am also watching the chat window for students’ questions or comments. On another screen, I have my email open in case students are trying to contact me with problems like getting into the MEET. The problem is that this kind of multitasking does not work. I am rapidly switching between a number of different things and this is, well, exhausting!
I am not a Zoom user. Our university uses Google Classroom and GSuite. In my online interactions there is no tiled screen of faces staring back at me. Students are online as a list of names in a sidebar on my screen. I tell them to mute their microphones and turn off their video, but mine are both on. This means I can’t see anyone and so I have to imagine that people are out there listening to me and that I am not an upturned iPhone face down on a desk while the other person is watching anime or playing computer games. I have this feeling of intense pressure to perform. To summon up that natural classroom energy and deliver it to a silent, faceless audience. It is a weird experience. So, I look at myself on screen and perform to myself. That seems even weirder. But I think at some point I’ll get used to it.
Other friends report lag, problems with time delays with video chat which seems to be another dimension that tires us out. In short, becoming more self-conscious combined with technological delays drains our energy, according to professor Marissa Shuffler at Clemson University in the US.
There are many websites where we can get advice on managing our self-consciousness and its resultant physical and psychological stressors. Examples range from how to sit properly for online learning to how to manage digital eye strain using blue screens. Using blue light glasses and reducing screen time might even reduce sleep problems.
And, if I am feeling this tired and burned out, how are students feeling? Especially, students whose only connection to the Internet is the five-and-a-half-inch screen of their smartphone. They might be staring at those devices for over six hours a day. After the first week, I felt this is where I needed to focus my attention, because if I was feeling burned-out and so, probably, were my students.
Yet, students I teach seem fine with joining online sessions using Google MEET and studying at their own pace. Most of our classes are asynchronous. This means that students can work at their own pace and do not have to be online for 90 minutes each class. The idea is to reduce the drain on student and teacher energy, so we are not all glued to our screens for 8 hours, or more, a day. The sudden shift to online learning means my classes are a lot less structured than face-to-face classes at the moment.
In a face-to-face class, students come in, are set work, complete tests, and generally follow a set schedule. Right now, my students have the opportunity to study at their own pace. Our established routines have changed from clearly defined days to less defined days where we have a greater degree of choice in how and when to study. With seemingly all the time in the world, some students might struggle with organizing their time and may make poor decisions when left to study at their own pace. My concern is that the same kind of poor decision-making and procrastination I see in face-to-face classroom settings might be amplified in a self-study environment.
The reason I think this is that for teenagers and young adults, the adolescent years are ubiquitously marked by an increase in decision-making in general. Often this period is marked by greater independence due to living away from home and becoming more financially self-sufficient. This year we can include greater decision-making connected to how and when to study. As decision-making responsibility increases, there are concomitant increases in risky behavior. Binging on online games, alcohol, and anime shows are oft-cited examples of where self-regulatory behaviors fail and impact students’ lives negatively. Potentially, the more free-time they have, the more self-regulatory behaviors might be challenging for some of our students.
Sarah-Jane Blakemore, author of Inventing Ourselves, thinks that we can all benefit from understanding the adolescent brain better. And, for me, this understanding is changing the way I think about this stage in my university students’ lives.
Blakemore’s book introduces two areas of the brain that researchers think we should be aware of in terms of how they function during what often seems a negatively marked period in life. That is not to say this information is irrelevant to everyone else; it is just a more prominent feature of many adolescents’ lives.
The first area, known as the limbic system, exhibits, among other things, acute sensitivity to the rewarding feeling of risk-taking. This means that during adolescence, young people experience heightened emotions, including an increased sense of thrill from making risky decisions. The compelling pull of an anime binge instead of working on assignments is unlike anything adult brains can experience. The second area of the brain we should be aware of is the prefrontal cortex. During adolescence, this area of the brain, which is associated with decision-making and inhibition, is still immature when compared to adult brains. Getting a kick out of taking risks and having generally less well-rounded decision-making and inhibitory skills are natural states that most, if not all, adolescents go through.
Less-well rounded decision-making and inhibitory skills are natural states that most, if not all, adolescents go through.
There are more than a few ways we can help students become better at decision-making through course design. But, right now, I’m focused on the tendency for procrastination until the night before, or sometimes hours before, a test to do any study. Although my solution to this is not exclusive to online teaching, it became a lot easier with Google Classroom and online teaching.
If we only test infrequently then there is likely to be little change in student behaviors. However, frequent testing can help to change them. The Testing Effect is a finding from cognitive psychology that fits very well with my online learning situation. Imagine being a student assigned a test that is due in a week’s time. If you are like many students I have taught, you will probably not study until the night before or even a few hours before taking that test. Now imagine that you are allowed to take a test more than once. Each time you take the test you are allowed to increase your score and, when the due date is reached, your best score is recorded. Would you change your behavior?
My students have reacted surprisingly well to this. The tests are not particularly difficult, but there has been a noticeable shift in submission behavior. About half of the students in a class are now submitting their test assignments early in the week because they want a chance to get better scores. They do not receive any answers, only a grade.
Frequent testing or retrieval activities where students are repeatedly having to recall or restudy information can not only help students to achieve better scores but move them toward mastery experiences in learning. Connections in the brain strengthen and that helps move information from short-term memory, where it is usually quickly forgotten, to long-term memory. I should add a caveat here that the content of the test matters. If it is simply a multiple-choice test, then it is possible that some students will just change their choices until they hit the right combination. Online learning systems like Future Learn, Coursera, and even the Google Educators Level 1 exam all follow this pattern. That is not to say multiple-choice questions have no value. We just need a variety of closed- and open-ended questions for students.
Google Classroom keeps a record of all my interactions with students, even sending summaries of some interactions by email when students take action on my comments in Google Documents. I am having more frequent, interesting conversations with students about how to learn than I did in a face-to-face classroom. Despite the first few weeks feeling overwhelming, I have found that working online and letting the computer do what it does best, accumulating lots of information for me in one place, is bringing new possibilities, such as delivering automatic (timely) feedback for students as a motivational tool and affording students more choice about their studies. For me personally, it is giving me a lot more time to focus on individual students’ study habits and to dialog with them to find the best way I can support them as a teacher.
Glenn Magee is a lecturer at Gifu Shotoku Gakuen University. He is researching student well-being and metacognition.